Tuesday, July 26

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

It was nominated for a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award, but I wouldn't call The Golem and the Jinni (Djinni in the UK of course) genre fiction. Not by a long shot. It also won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, which suits it much better. In fact, as I was reading it, I was struggling to recall just what it reminded me of, and looking through the list of past mythopoeic awards winners has furnished the answer: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Like Jonathan Strange, The Golem and the Jinni takes the lore of particular cultures - the esoteric or occult folk beliefs that slot into the gaps left by organised religion - and brings them to life in a richly-imagined historical setting. For Clarke's English academics and politicians of the Napoleonic wars era, it was fairies and romantic enchantment. For Wecker's turn-of-the-century New York immigrant Jewish and (Christian) Syrian communities, it's Kabbalah and golems, and Bedu sorcerers and djinn, respectively.

Indeed, the origin stories of the two main protagonists, Chava and Ahmad, the eponymous golem and djinni, both read like they are fairy tales, and serve to transpose some old-world folklore into the urban realism of life in the Lower East Side.

The golem's story which begins the narrative, detailing her creation at the hands of a Polish kabbalist at the request of a repulsive furniture seller who desires a wife, has a timeless feel to it. I couldn't pin down the historical setting with any certainty until later on, when the golem finds herself first awakened aboard a steamship, and then cast adrift in Manhattan.

The djinni's backstory is delivered in episodes placed throughout the book, presented as something like flashbacks, although the djinni himself remains amnesiac to much of his history, having woken from a centuries'-long imprisonment in a magical flask, bound to human form and without memory of the circumstances of his capture or the sorcerer who was his master.

Much of the first part of the book details these two otherworldly creatures stumbling around exploring Manhattan, the foibles of the human society they find themselves in, and their own natures. Chava really shines here as a character, with her cautious nature conflicting with her curiosity about herself and the world around her. In one memorable scene, she decides to experiment by eating a piece of bread, Wecker's prose capturing each detail as she chews, swallows, and eventually passes the mashed-up bread, and her pride as she shows the result to her rabbi protector.

Chava and Ahmad meet later in the book than you might think, which allows the reader to have a good sense of both characters before allowing them to interact, though the inevitability of their meeting does frustrate the sense of plot somewhat. When they do meet, they form an odd-couple bond predicated as much on their clashing personality differences as creatures of earth and of fire respectively as on their both being non-human beings in a world of humans. This outsider perspective mirrors that of their Jewish and Syrian adopted communities, and serves to reflect on humanity and society. In fact, despite its fantastical elements, I found myself thinking that this is one of the most 'human' books I've read in a long time.

It's helped along by a fantastic sense of place. New York City of a century ago feels fully realised and vibrant; from the character-filled immigrant communities Chava and Ahmad call home, to the archaeologically-preserved night-time hours spent in Central Park and its surrounding mansions, the backdrop is tangible and explored. If the whole book had consisted of the golem and the djinni wandering around discovering New York and trying to make sense of their lives there, I don't think I would have minded much.

Of course it doesn't. There's a plot. And it's not a bad plot, involving Chava's kabbalist creator and his continuing quest for eternal life. And it ties in with the circumstances of Ahmad's capture in the flask and the recovery of his memories. It's a perfectly serviceable plot, but perhaps it doesn't shine as brightly as some of the other elements in the narrative.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone, from urban fantasy or genre fiction enthusiasts looking for something a bit 'more', to literary fiction people looking for an insightful, character-driven bedtime read. It's one of my highlights this year.

Notes on the audiobook:

George Guidall, who is apparently like THE audiobook guy, narrates the audiobook edition. His Wikipedia entry states that he has recorded over 1270 audiobooks as of 2014 - which might be a world record. If he's narrating these books at the rate of about 1 per month, which seems reasonable, given that that's my approximate rate of consumption of them, then we can estimate that he's been recording audiobooks since about 1908.

Here's a link to an interview with him in the NYT Book Review (fast forward to about 20.30). Two quotes in particular stand out:
As far as I'm concerned, as an audiobook narrator, my responsibility is to get an overall emotional arc going for the book that involves the reader at some point. 
I don't trust anyone who says "I don't read the book beforehand because it breaks it for me. I just like to go into the sound booth and record." I have to know how the story ends before I can begin it, and I have to know what surprises are on the way.
This was my first experience of him as a narrator. His grandfatherly voice is at once soothing and pregnant with emotional significance, and though his performance is subdued and subtle, he succeeds in communicating a range of tensions and a myriad of characters. I'd happily recommend the audiobook version to anyone, and will be on the lookout for more Guidall-narrated audiobooks in the future.

Rating: 4/5
Amazon: The Golem and the Djinni
Audible: The Golem and the Djinni
Goodreads: The Golem and the Jinni

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